Brand Higher Education Marketing

Brands, Know Thyself

By Sean Carton \ November 4, 2021

This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.
Farewell, my blessing season this in thee!
Polonius, spoken to his son Laertes in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Act 1, Scene III, lines 78-82.

 

“I don’t want to sell anything, buy anything, or process anything as a career. I don’t want to sell anything bought or processed, or buy anything sold or processed, or process anything sold, bought, or processed, or repair anything sold, bought, or processed.”
Lloyd Dobler, Say Anything, 1989.

“I yam what I yam.”
Popeye, 1933.

Recently, while doing research for this “mission-driven” issue of our newsletter, I was poking around the interwebs looking for info about “mission-driven companies” when I came across this article by Lief Abraham on Medium.com.

Now, Lief’s a pretty accomplished entrepreneur, currently serving as Co-CEO of stock-watching-app developer Public.com as well as being founder of two companies acquired by tech giants And.co and Pay With A Tweet. And, based on his article, he seems like a pretty smart guy: his advice is one of the most cogent and insightful statements about mission-driven companies I’d read.

“I believe,” he stated simply, “a good mission statement is something actionable you can vet ideas against.”

He then went on to use the hypothetical example of Google pondering the idea of starting a fleet of food trucks. Turning Google’s mission into a question, he asked how this food truck idea would stand up.

“Does this [starting a fleet of food trucks],” he asked, “help [to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful]?” (brackets his)

If you think about it for a microsecond, the answer is, not surprisingly, “no.” While a fleet of Google food trucks might help alleviate the hunger of the techies who ate from it (while lightening their wallets a bit … unless the food was ad-supported, but that’s a different post), it definitely wouldn’t advance Google’s mission of organizing the world’s information and making it universally accessible and useful.

What would? Lief suggests that simply moving from the idea of running actual food trucks to developing an app that tracked food trucks would align Google with their mission, a recipe for success (apologies for the pun).

This made total sense to me. Having a clear, concise mission statement allows an organization to vet just about any idea that it cooks up. Google food truck? Doesn’t match. Google food truck tracking app? On point.

It’s a great way to test mission statements. Not only does it let you test your organization’s mission statement for conciseness and real-life applicability, it also lets you test the intent of your mission statement. If you can match a mission statement to any particular move, then go for it. If not — or if the mission statement is too vague and convoluted to test anything against, either re-think the idea or, in the latter case, rethink your mission statement.

A great idea. But the more I thought about it, I realized that Lief’s test was more than about the mechanics of constructing a mission statement. It was really about organizations knowing themselves.

No doubt you’ve heard at least one of the quotes introducing this article. You may have even heard all of them if you’ve of a certain age (or have a particular pop culture sensibility).I chose them because they do a great job of exemplifying the heart of Lief’s insight: to be successful, an organization has to know itself first. If your organization doesn’t know itself, you can’t be “mission-driven,” because you don’t have a clear-cut mission that can drive you.

So how can an organization “know itself?” Sounds easy, right? Maybe it is, but being an “insider” makes it tough. After all, there are multi-thousand-year traditions devoted to helping human beings know themselves by being mindful of who they are. How can organizations accomplish the same thing?

It’s not easy, but if nothing else it requires a hard look at what your organization is and what it does. It means looking beyond the bland — and often committee-created — “mission statement” to look at the characteristics of your organization and what you do.

Doing so can have a profound impact, but it can only happen if you’re willing to take the incredibly hard step of making a decision about what your organization really is, not what you wish it could be.

In real life (as opposed to blog posts), this isn’t as hard as it might seem, although it’s probably scarier than you might imagine. Why? Because defining your organization as having a singular mission means appealing to a specific audience who thinks that mission is important and — here’s where it gets scary — rejecting those who don’t.

Many organizations make the mistake of thinking they can somehow craft a mission and a brand that’s not going to offend anyone. After all, why limit yourself? But once you define your organization, you can’t be Y, Z, or A through W. That said, what about all those prospective customers who might be attracted to all those other letters?

Guess what? They’re not. Or, if they are, once they find your organization’s not Y or Z, they’re not going to be happy. They thought you were one thing. Turns out you’re something else. Who wouldn’t be disappointed?

Limiting your mission and your organization means that you can’t be everything to everybody. And that’s scary, no argument about that.

I can point to many organizations that I’ve worked with who thought they were playing it safe by appealing to everyone — trying to be something they weren’t — only to realize] that being true to themselves is what really matters.

One of the best examples of this is a university I worked with years ago. Located in the far northern reaches of the U.S., they had snow somewhere on campus almost throughout the academic year (although, to be fair, those snow piles may have been located in some of the shadier parts of campus).

But was that how they presented themselves? Heck no! If you looked at their admissions materials, you’d think they were a tropical paradise, with pictured students sporting shorts and T-shirts as they frolicked about the campus on green lawns.

Harumph. As far as I could tell, this school must have done its viewbook photoshoot on the one day of the year before graduation when the sun came out and a heat wave rolled through the region. The reality was that, for most of the year, it was frickin’ cold.

While the sunny-day photoshoot might have made for attractive pictures, the fact was that their retention rate was terrible, especially for students not from the area. And this was a problem. A big problem.

Why? Because the reality of their brand experience was almost completely divorced from the image they projected. The result? Students who didn’t know what to expect left as soon as they found out the reality.

Our solution was simple: don’t be afraid of being who you are. This isn’t a school for everyone. It takes a special person to thrive under the conditions of their campus. If you’re up to it, please come! If you’re not, it’s best to look somewhere else.

When we launched the university’s new website — their primary marketing vehicle — it prominently featured winter pictures from the area. It wasn’t apologetic about stating clearly what student life was like.

The result? Better student retention than they’d ever had. In fact, the new true brand image was so successful that they ran out of campus housing and had to rent accommodations in their town.

That’s a win.

We didn’t change their mission statement, but the lesson is still the same: being true to who your organization really is works. Whether you’re a global tech giant with a mission to organize and make all the world’s information accessible and organized or a small public university in the northern reaches of the U.S., understanding who you are — and not being afraid to express it — works. You can try to be something else, but your customers and prospects are going to figure it out. And when they do, they’re going to go somewhere else.

This is true of marketing and mission statements. The truth can be tested. Lies will out. For us, we’ll stick with the great philosopher Popeye. We are what we are. Your organization should be too.

Sean Carton
Chief Strategist
Sean Carton
Chief Strategist

Sean leads our Discover360 engagements, gathering data and research to develop the insights necessary for crafting effective strategies for our clients. He has a perfectly varied background for our higher education and nonprofit partners: He’s served as everything from a dean to an adjunct professor to the co-director of a high school cybersecurity summer camp to the leader of a university 3D printing lab. Sean also has an uncanny talent for creating the perfect meme faster than you can search for one.